People are quick to recognize lemurs, thanks in no small part to the "Madagascar" franchise. Despite their impressive media profile, however, nearly every species of lemur is in danger of extinction.
Those are the provisional findings of a recent lemur workshop led by the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group (PSG), and the findings have resulted in the reclassification of 105 species as either critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species.
"This is, without a doubt, the highest percentage of threat for any large group of mammals and for any large group of vertebrates,"said Russ Mittermeier, chief conservation officer for Global Wildlife Conservation and chair of the PSG.
Why lemurs matter
The five families of lemurs, 15 genera and 111 species and subspecies are all endemic to Madagascar, a hotbed of biodiversity. Lemurs represent about 20 percent of all primate species on the planet, which makes Madagascar one of the four major regions for primates in the world, despite the island being fourth-fifths the size of Texas. Only Brazil has richer primate diversity, but that South American country is six times the size of Madagascar.
A decline in the lemur population would mark a significant blow for not only the island's biodiversity but its economy as well.
"Lemurs are to Madagascar what giant pandas are to China — they are the goose that laid the golden egg, attracting tourists and nature lovers to visit the Red Island," said Jonah Ratsimbazafy, president of Groupe d'Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar.
The new assessment found that 38 lemur species, up from 24, to be critically endangered, 44 endangered and 23 vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Two mouse lemur species were considered of least concern for extinction, and four other species were not classified at all due to a lack of data.
The results are only provisional and will require more review before they are made official.
The indri, one of the largest living lemurs, had its classification changed from endangered to critically endangered in the new survey. The blue-eyed black lemur, one of the few non-human mammals with blue eyes, is also now considered critically endangered. The rarest of lemurs, the northern sportive lemur, is critically endangered as well. There are only 50 known individuals in the wild.
The biggest threat is us
Threats to lemurs include destruction of their forest habitats, whether by means of slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging and mining. Hunting the lemurs for food or to sell as pets has also increased since the last survey in July 2012.
"This is very alarming, and we have noticed a particularly worrying increase in the level of hunting of lemurs taking place, including larger-scale commercial hunting, which is unlike anything we have seen before in Madagascar," said Christoph Schwitzer, director of conservation at the Bristol Zoological Society and one of the organizers of the workshop.
"We are investing a lot of time and resources into addressing these issues," Schwitzer continued, "and will be implementing our Lemur Action Plan over the coming years, which we are confident will make a significant difference to the current situation."